I will admit that I have been a little distracted and tone-deaf in many areas of my post-election life. Feeling overwhelmed by the daily onslaught of troubling news about eroding civil rights, new threats to our national security, environment, free press, and truth in general, I took my eye off one of my most important concerns of all: the well-being of my 10- and 11-year-old students.
In my attempt to steer clear of politics in the classroom, I had failed to check in on my students regarding the largest elephant in the classroom: President Trump.
In fact, it was a colleague of mine who suggested that I ask my students about how they were feeling since the election. Her class discussion that morning had inadvertently steered in that direction, and she had been stunned by the deep levels of anxiety among her students.
As she described their fears and dismay, I grew increasingly embarrassed: Somehow I had failed to consider whether the same election stress that had eroded my mental well-being was impacting theirs as well.
I waited until later that day, during a class discussion reflecting on our annual Martin Luther King Jr. assembly, to gently wade into the topic. I was not prepared to hear what I heard.
The first thing that struck me was that every one of them knew more about the election and current political debate than I could have ever imagined. Everything from how much more of the popular vote Hillary Clinton won (approximately 3 million votes) to the rogue NASA and National Park Service Twitter accounts reflected their sophisticated level of knowledge related to a variety of issues.
They knew about “alternative facts.” They knew about all the marches (and the “pussy” hats). They knew about Russian hacking. They knew about Trump’s determination to build a wall along the Mexican border as well as our country discriminating against Muslims entering the United States while offering access to their fellow countrymen of the Christian faith. The list went on and on.
Admittedly, I had prepped them for the election by encouraging them to follow the news and pay attention to the candidates and the issues. But after the election, I had lost my voice. I did not feel that I had the tools to navigate the current war on truth with my fifth-grade class — at least until I found my bearings and a framework to teach current content with political neutrality.
Despite my abandonment of current affairs in the classroom, our conversation revealed that my students had not lost their awareness or their interest in politics.
I asked them how they were getting their information. Were they having conversations at the dinner table? Some said yes, but many others answered that they knew what was going on based on overheard adult conversations — words not necessarily meant for their ears. Others reported that they picked news up from the media via their phones, tablets, and computers; radios in their cars; and TVs in their homes. Political references and comments between teachers were being overheard as well.
After listening to the stories of heightened levels of stress, increased anger and depression, diminished joy, and a new generalized anxiety about the future, I realized the dramatic impact that the election was having on family dynamics. My students talked about how their parents had shorter fuses and how they seemed sadder. One said simply, “There is just less happiness in our home.”
Following our discussion, I realized that ignoring politics in my classroom was not making it all go away. I reassured my students that I would be checking in with them more often, and made a promise to myself to find ways to effectively discuss their fears in class. I also asked them what they did at home to feel better. Some answered “play.” One family had turned off the TV. Another student meditated with her mom to feel better. Two participated in the Women’s March with their parents.
While I recognize that not every family is unhappy with the policies and promises put forth by our new president, based on our discussion, many of the families at my school seem to be struggling. And the huge numbers at the protest marches suggest that those parents are in good company.
This is clearly a new frontier for parents. When my generation was in fifth-grade, most of us barely knew who was president, let alone how the popular and electoral voting systems worked. No one needed to know. Adults could ― and did ― do the worrying for us.
And for the most part, they did it privately. Today, politics is louder than ever and the language surrounding it is more divisive, dramatic, and apocalyptic. We are going to have to pay more attention to how we talk to children about the current political climate. No more denial ― they are listening.
In addition to directly engaging them in conversation, we should figure out ways to allay children’s anxieties by empowering them through action. Participating in marches brought some of my students (and their parents) a measure of hope and relief.
Parents can also explore other ways to channel their children’s anxieties into action by helping them identify what they are most concerned about and investigate what they can do to make the situation better. Join an organization, raise money, write letters, do community service. Not only will children feel less hopeless and helpless, but it will help nurture them to become engaged and informed future voters and the kind of citizens our democracy depends upon.